Contemplating childlessness and cancer

I write this at the end of World Childless week 2020. 

What I am about to say may prove a little controversial. I can only speak from my own experience, and it is not my intention to belittle anyone’s experience of cancer. These observations are from my own experience of being a childless woman who then happened to get breast cancer. Unlike many others, my cancer did not cause my childlessness. Did my childlessness cause my cancer? I don’t know, but stress and grief are part of the aetiology, I am sure. 

Before I knew that I was unable to have children, I couldn’t even contemplate the idea. Eight years ago my therapist asked me what I would do if the IVF failed and I was never able to have children. I kept the feeling of utter bleakness at bay by steeling myself and vehemently replying “That can’t happen. It’s not possible. I can’t not have children”. There was no way I could even countenance the possibility. When you are going through IVF you have to believe it’s going to work. Why would you do it otherwise? When I did IVF it was taboo. Not something you talked about. I was quite open about it but I received nothing like the same degree of understanding and concern which having cancer brought me. Somehow having cancer makes you a worthy person, deserving of special treatment, care and compassion. Friends, family, colleagues and even strangers were so kind to me when they heard I had cancer. I felt so validated, such a sense of belonging. 

When you have cancer everyone asks how you are. People cut you some slack when you’re not firing on all four cylinders. It’s ok to be feeling sad or apprehensive. Childlessness is not something you feel able to share without inviting judgement, pity or derision. That or just a complete inability to fathom why it’s even an issue. Comments like “have some of mine!”, “at least you can travel!”, “you still have your health” or “it must be nice to get so much sleep”, sting. And that’s just other people! The way you beat yourself up is far worse. If only I’d not been so picky about finding the right man until it was too late; it must be because I’m not fit to be a mother; I can’t have wanted it enough or tried hard enough. I never thought that way about my cancer. It was just bloody bad luck and I could deal with it. I didn’t need to soul search to figure out why I had cancer or what I had done to cause it.

When you apply to adopt, the local authority treat you with suspicion. You feel like a criminal until proven otherwise. And when adoption fails, or you realise that you’re not strong enough to give yourself heart and soul, body, mind and strength to someone else’s child, you feel like you’re not good enough. What people don’t realise is that adoption is nothing like having your own child. It’s not just a case of picking a baby off the shelf. I wasn’t prepared for this when I embarked on the adoption process. I thought it would be a magic bullet to build my own family and to fill that enormous hole that was inside me. I was naive. It wasn’t until we eventually realised that we couldn’t adopt, that I finally released the stranglehold under which I had kept my emotions, to fully experience my grief.

Until I joined gateway women, a community of childless women, I had no idea that what I was feeling was grief. We call it disenfranchised grief. Nobody died. There is nothing tangible to hold onto. We have no happy memories to anchor us. Just a great big gaping hole left by what never was, is not and never will be. I have been grieving my children who never were for over seven years now, though I only really allowed myself to acknowledge that grief five years ago when our adoption journey came to an end. At first I thought I wouldn’t survive. The emotional pain was indescribable. All my empty tomorrows stretching in front of me for ever and ever. But you do survive, because you have to. With the help of Gateway Women I have learned to grow around my grief, to celebrate what I have rather than dwelling on what I don’t have. At the same time I still honour my grief and that visceral longing to touch my children, which will always be with me.

I’ve had words with God over both my childlessness and my cancer. It sounds weird, but I don’t really hold the fact that I had cancer against Him. It was more a case of, “Oh, thanks Lord, you have a really sick sense of humour – help me to get through this!”  With the childlessness it has been a completely different kettle of fish. “Why do you hate me?! Why have you forsaken me?” and try as I might I couldn’t forgive Him for it. With cancer there is resolution. Even when I was in Covid-19 limbo with no idea when I would get my mastectomy, I knew that it would happen sooner or later. With childlessness there is no resolution. There is no cure.

There is no cure but there is life after accepting that you will never be a mother or a grandmother. You will be forever excluded from that club but you can still LIVE. When I was trying to disentangle my childless grief from my anger over having cancer, my friend and meditation guide, Merryn, showed me that there are some aspects of my life now which wouldn’t have been possible had I had children. It’s not the path I would have chosen, were I given the choice, but it is the path I am on and it is a good one. You can see from my posts on creating joy and wild swimming that I have found things which make my heart sing and my skin zing. 

I find it almost impossible not to play the comparison game. I consider my experience of cancer to have been a walk in the park compared to that of many others. I didn’t have to endure chemo or radiotherapy, nor did I suffer the indignity caused by many other types of cancer. As my mother-in-law said, you can do without a breast! I might think differently if I’d been wiped out and throwing my guts up from chemo, or had to get used to a colostomy bag, or been forced to endure paroxysms of excruciating pain. I can only speak from my own experience. Of course, secondary cancer is another thing entirely. I can’t even imagine how I would come to terms with it if I got secondaries. I have huge admiration for those who remain positive against all odds. 

Thank you, my fellow people who have had cancer, and thank you my friends and family, whether you are childless or blessed with children, for being here. Thank you for reading. Thank you for listening. Thank you for just being.

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